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Flash Drive Vs Hard Drive Vs Optical Media

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011 by | Filed Under: File & Disk Management, Hardware & Peripherals

Mallory from NC asks:

Okay, answer a question for me. Which is better for storing my important files and backing stuff up – flash drives, hard drives or optical media (CDs, DVDs, etc.)?

When it comes to storing data of importance, the question of “which media should I use” makes itself apparent in our minds almost immediately. After all, storing precious pictures or personal documents on a disk or drive only to have it fail a few years, months, sometimes just weeks, down the road is an experience we all would rather avoid; particularly when storing major life events, such as birthday videos or wedding photos. So, what media should you choose when planning to store your important data?  To answer this question, first we need to look at some of the qualities and limitations which the most commonly available storage formats present.



Storage Format: Hard Disk Drives

Pros: Large storage capacity for the price / Typically good lifespan

Cons: Susceptible to malfunction due to mechanical failures and physical impact

If you own a computer, be it desktop or laptop, then you most likely have files stored on a hard drive of some type, probably housed within your computer. While may be the safest place to store your hard drive(s,) doing so will not guarantee a trouble free experience. Why? A hard drive is somewhat similar to an old vinyl record player: housed inside the hard drives’ outer casing are discs which spin as a mechanical arm moves back and forth above the disc surface, reading and writing data to and from the platters beneath. While this method of data storage has worked for many, many years, there has always been one unavoidable fault which leads to inevitable failure of a hard drive: the aforementioned mechanical parts. As with any device which relies on constant and precise mechanical movement to run, hard drive parts eventually fail, usually taking your data to the grave with them. Due to the precision with which they operate, hard impacts may also cause a hard drive to read or write data in error, and possibly fail altogether as well. Despite these shortcomings, most hard drives have a life expectancy of at least 3-5 years, with many reportedly living a healthy life at 10+ years of age.

Storage Format: Optical Media (CD-R / DVD-R)

Pros: Inexpensive, portable

Cons: Inconsistent lifespan, temperamental storage requirements, data lost over time due to degradation

Optical media, such as burnable CD’s and DVD’s, are quite handy for short term storage of data. However, they remain a less than desirable choice for long term and mission critical data archival. The reason is simple: everyday optical media degrades quickly and easily. Although many manufacturers claim their optical media will last for 30 years or more under perfect conditions, their actual lifespan with normal use and storage is typically closer to a few years (at most) than a few decades. There are many different factors which conspire against the lifespan of CD-R’s and DVD-R’s; sub-par dyes (the reflective portion of a disc where data is written) which degrade much sooner than rated, exposure to heat, cold, or sunlight which also degrade said dyes, and weak or wrongly calibrated optical disc burners which fail to write data as intended. All of these factors make everyday optical media formats a less than favorable storage choice; ok for short term data storage, but definitely not the choice for long term backup of important information.

flash drive
Storage Format: Flash Drives

Pros: Durability, Versatility

Cons: Debatable life span, higher price per gigabyte

The last decade has given rise to the newest consumer storage devices in this comparison: solid state flash (aka thumb) drives. Unlike the aforementioned storage mediums, flash drives use no moving parts or temperate dyes to store data, relying instead on electrical pulses to write data to a static storage chip. This method of storage allows for much higher shock resistance and durability, as well as smaller form factors and increased portability, than what is traditionally offered in a hard drive or CD/DVD. The downside to this fantastic usability is a generally higher price per mega/gigabyte (i.e. for the price of a 32GB flash drive, you could purchase a larger portable hard drive with a terabyte (1000 gigabytes) of storage.) The life expectancy flash drives is also up for debate, as the solid state memory used to store your data does wear out the more times you write to it. Good quality flash drives from well known, trusted manufacturers are typically agreed to have a life span of a few years or more, making the flash drive a good choice for your everyday data storage needs.

By now you’re probably thinking to yourself “should I use any of these formats to store my data?” The answer is yes: use all of them. If you want to sleep soundly at night without worrying about your irreplaceable pictures, videos, documents, etc., regularly backup your important data on at two sources; creating duplicates which will allow you to retrieve your important information should any one backup fail completely. Sweet dreams!

~ J. Conboy

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2 Responses to “Flash Drive Vs Hard Drive Vs Optical Media”

  1. Harry Torossian says:

    Is there such a thing as a usb connected external disk drive so I could load things to a pc that has an unworkable disk drive?
    Thank you Harry

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